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   Chapter 3 THE THRESHOLD

The Danger Mark By Robert W. Chambers Characters: 51146

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


She awoke tired; she had scarcely closed her eyes that night. The fresh odour of roses filled her room when her maid arrived with morning gifts from Kathleen and Scott.

She lay abed until noon. They started dressing her about three. After that the day became unreal to her.

Manhattan was conventionally affable to Geraldine Seagrave, also somewhat curious to see what she looked like. Fifth Avenue and the neighbouring side streets were jammed with motors and carriages on the bright January afternoon that Geraldine made her bow, and the red and silver drawing-rooms, so famous a generation ago, were packed continually.

What people saw was a big, clumsy house expensively overdecorated in the appalling taste of forty years ago, now screened by forests of palms and vast banks of flowers; and they saw a number of people popularly identified with the sort of society which newspapers delight to revere; and a few people of real distinction; and a young girl, noticeably pale, standing beside Kathleen Severn and receiving the patronage of dowagers and beaux, and the impulsive clasp of fellowship from fresh-faced young girls and nice-looking, well-mannered young fellows.

The general opinion seemed to be that Geraldine Seagrave possessed all the beauty which rumour had attributed to her as her right by inheritance, but the animation of her clever mother was lacking. Also, some said that her manners still smacked of the nursery; and that, unless it had been temporarily frightened out of her, she had little personality and less charm.

Nothing, as a matter of fact, had been frightened out of her; for weeks she had lived in imagination so vividly through that day that when the day really arrived it found her physically and mentally unresponsive; the endless reiteration of names sounded meaninglessly in her ears, the crowding faces blurred. She was passively satisfied to be there, and content with the touch of hands and the pleasant-voiced formalities of people pressing toward her from every side.

Afterward few impressions remained; she remembered the roses' perfume, and a very fat woman with a confusing similarity of contour fore and aft who blocked the lines and rattled on like a machine-gun saying dreadfully frank things about herself, her family, and everybody she mentioned.

Na?da Mallett, whom she had not seen in many years, she had known immediately, and now remembered. And Na?da had taken her white-gloved hand shyly, whispering constrained formalities, then had disappeared into the unreality of it all.

Duane, her old playmate, may have been there, but she could not remember having seen him. There were so many, many youths of the New York sort, all dressed alike, all resembling one another-many, many people flowing past her where she stood submerged in the silken ebb eddying around her.

These were the few hazy impressions remaining-she was recalling them now while dressing for her first dinner dance. Later, when her maid released her with a grunt of Gallic disapproval, she, distraite, glanced at her gown in the mirror, still striving to recall something definite of the day before.

"Was Duane there?" she asked Kathleen, who had just entered.

"No, dear.... Why did you happen to think of Duane Mallett?"

"Na?da came.... Duane was such a splendid little boy.... I had hoped--"

Mrs. Severn said coolly:

"Duane isn't a very splendid man. I might as well tell you now as later."

"What in the world do you mean, Kathleen?"

"I mean that people say he was rather horrid abroad. Some women don't mind that sort of thing, but I do."

"Horrid? How?"

"He went about Europe with unpleasant people. He had too much money-and that is ruinous for a boy. I hate to disillusion you, but for several years people have been gossipping about Duane Mallett's exploits abroad; and they are not savoury."

"What were they? I am old enough to know."

"I don't propose to tell you. He was notoriously wild. There were scandals. Hush! here comes Scott."

"For Heaven's sake, pinch some colour into your cheeks!" exclaimed her brother; "we're not going to a wake!"

And Kathleen said anxiously: "Your gown is perfection, dear; are you a trifle tired? You do look pale."

"Tired?" repeated Geraldine-"not in the least, dearest.... If I seem not to be excited, I really am, internally; but perhaps I haven't learned how to show it.... Don't I look well? I was so preoccupied with my gown in the mirror that I forgot to examine my face."

Mrs. Severn kissed her. "You and your gown are charming. Come, we are late, and that isn't permitted to débutantes."

It was Mrs. Magnelius Grandcourt who was giving the first dinner and dance for Geraldine Seagrave. In the cloak-room she encountered some very animated women of the younger married set, who spoke to her amiably, particularly a Mrs. Dysart, who said she knew Duane Mallett, and who was so friendly that a bit of colour warmed Geraldine's pallid cheeks and still remained there when, a few minutes later, she saluted her heavily jewelled hostess and recognised in her the fat fore-and-aft lady of the day before.

Mrs. Magnelius Grandcourt, glittering like a South American scarab, detained her with the smallest and chubbiest hands she had ever seen inside of gloves.

"My dear, you look ghastly," said her hostess. "You're probably scared to death. This is my son, Delancy, who is going to take you in, and I'm wondering about you, because Delancy doesn't get on with débutantes, but that can't be helped. If he's pig enough not to talk to you, it wouldn't surprise me-and it's just as well, too, for if he likes anybody he compromises them, but it's no use your ever liking a Grandcourt, for all the men make rotten husbands-I'm glad Rosalie Dysart threw him over for poor Jack Dysart; it saved her a divorce! I'd get one if I could; so would Magnelius. My husband was a judge once, but he resigned because he couldn't send people up for the things he was doing himself."

Mrs. Grandcourt, still gabbling away, turned to greet new arrivals, merely switching to another subject without interrupting her steady stream of outrageous talk. She was celebrated for it-and for nothing else.

Geraldine, bewildered and a little horrified, looked at her billowy, bediamonded hostess, then at young Delancy Grandcourt, who, not perceptibly abashed by his mother's left-handed compliments, lounged beside her, apparently on the verge of a yawn.

"My mother says things," he explained patiently; "nobody minds 'em.... Shall we exchange nonsense-or would you rather save yourself until dinner?"

"Save myself what?" she asked nervously.

"The nuisance of talking to me about nothing. I'm not clever."

Geraldine reddened.

"I don't usually talk about nothing."

"I do," he said. "I never have much to say."

"Is that because you don't like débutantes?" she asked coldly.

"It's because they don't care about me.... If you would talk to me, I'd really be grateful."

He flushed and stepped back awkwardly to allow room for a slim, handsome man to pass between them. The very ornamental man did not pass, however, but calmly turned toward Geraldine, and began to talk to her.

She presently discovered his name to be Dysart; and she also discovered that Mr. Dysart didn't know her name; and, for a moment after she had told him, surprise and a confused sense of resentment silenced her, because she was quite certain now that they had never been properly presented.

That negligence of conventions was not unusual in this new world she was entering, she had already noticed; and this incident was evidently another example of custom smilingly ignored. She looked up questioningly, and Dysart, instantly divining the trouble, laughed in his easy, attractive fashion-the fashion he usually affected with women.

"You seemed so fresh and cool and sweet all alone in this hot corner that I simply couldn't help coming over to hear whether your voice matched the ensemble. And it surpasses it. Are you going to be resentful?"

"I'm too ignorant to be-or to laugh about it as you do.... Is it because I look a simpleton that you come to see if I really am?"

"Are you planning to punish me, Miss Seagrave?"

"I'm afraid I don't know how."

"Fate will, anyway, unless I am placed next you at dinner," he said with his most reassuring smile, and rose gracefully.

"I'm going to fix it," he added, and, pushing his way toward his hostess, disappeared in the crush.

Later young Grandcourt reappeared from the crush to take her in. Every table seated eight, and, sure enough, as she turned involuntarily to glance at her neighbour on the right, it was Dysart's pale face, cleanly cut as a cameo, that met her gaze. He nodded back to her with unfeigned satisfaction at his own success.

"That's the way to manage," he said, "when you want a thing very much. Isn't it, Miss Seagrave?"

"You did not ask me whether I wanted it," she said.

"Don't you want me here? If you don't-" His features fell and he made a pretence of rising. His pale, beautifully sculptured face had become so fearfully serious that she coloured up quickly.

"Oh, you wouldn't do such a thing-now! to embarrass me."

"Yes, I would-I'd do anything desperate."

But she had already caught the flash of mischief, and realising that he had been taking more or less for granted in tormenting her, looked down at her plate and presently tasted what was on it.

"I know you are not offended," he murmured. "Are you?"

She knew she was not, too; but she merely shrugged. "Then why do you ask me, Mr. Dysart?"

"Because you have such pretty shoulders," he replied seriously.

"What an idiotic reply to make!"

"Why? Don't you think you have?"

"What?"

"Pretty shoulders."

"I don't think anything about my shoulders!"

"You would if there was anything the matter with them," he insisted.

Once or twice he turned his handsome dark gaze on her while she was dissecting her terrapin.

"They tip up a little-at the corners, don't they?" he inquired anxiously. "Does it hurt?"

"Tip up? What tips up?" she demanded.

"Your eyes."

She swung around toward him, confused and exasperated; but no seriousness was proof against the delighted malice in Dysart's face; and she laughed a little, and laughed again when he did. And she thought that he was, perhaps, the handsomest man she had ever seen. All débutantes did.

Young Grandcourt turned from the pretty, over-painted woman who, until that moment, had apparently held him interested when his food failed to monopolise his attention, and glanced heavily around at Geraldine.

All he saw was the back of her head and shoulders. Evidently she was not missing him. Evidently, too, she was having a very good time with Dysart.

"What are you laughing about?" he asked wistfully, leaning forward to see her face.

Geraldine glanced back across her shoulder.

"Mr. Dysart is trying to be impertinent," she replied carelessly; and returned again to the impertinent one, quite ready for more torment now that she began to understand how agreeable it was.

But Dysart's expression had changed; there was something vaguely caressing in voice and manner as he murmured:

"Do you know there is something almost divine in your face."

"What did you say?" asked Geraldine, looking up from her ice in its nest of spun sugar.

"You so strenuously reject the truthful compliments I pay you, that perhaps I'd better not repeat this one."

"Was it really more absurd flattery?"

"No, never mind...." He leaned back in his chair, absently turning the curious, heavily chiselled ring on his little finger, but every few moments his expressive eyes reverted to her. She was eating her ice with all the frank enjoyment of a schoolgirl.

"Do you know, Miss Seagrave, that you and I are really equipped for better things than talking nonsense."

"I know that I am," she observed.... "Isn't this spun sugar delicious!"

"Yes; and so are you."

But she pretended not to hear.

He laughed, then fell silent; his dreamy gaze shifted from vacancy to her-and, casually, across the room, where it settled lightly as a butterfly on his wife, and there it poised for a moment's inexpressive examination. Scott Seagrave was talking to Rosalie; she did not notice her husband.

After that, with easy nonchalance approaching impudence, he turned to his own neglected dinner partner, Sylvia Quest, who received his tardy attentions with childish irritation. She didn't know any better. And there was now no time to patch up matters, for the signal to rise had been given and Dysart took Sylvia to the door with genuine relief. She bored him dreadfully since she had become sentimental over him. They always did.

Lounging back through the rising haze of tobacco-smoke he encountered Peter Tappan and stopped to exchange a word.

"Dancing?" he inquired, lighting his cigarette.

Tappan nodded. "You, too, of course." For Dysart was one of those types known in society as a "dancing man." He also led cotillions, and a morally blameless life as far as the more virile Commandments were concerned.

He said: "That little Seagrave girl is rather fetching."

Tappan answered indifferently:

"She resembles the general run of this year's output. She's weedy. They all ought to marry before they go about to dinners, anyway."

"Marry whom?"

"Anybody-Delancy, here, for instance. You know as well as I do that no woman is possible unless she's married," yawned Tappan. "Isn't that so, Delancy?" clapping Grandcourt on the shoulder.

Grandcourt said "yes," to be rid of him; but Dysart turned around with his usual smile of amused contempt.

"You think so, too, Delancy," he said, "because what is obvious and ready-made appeals to you. You think as you eat-heavily-and you miss a few things. That little Seagrave girl is charming. But you'd never discover it."

Grandcourt slowly removed the fat cigar from his lips, rolled it meditatively between thick forefinger and thumb:

"Do you know, Jack, that you've been saying that sort of thing to me for a number of years?"

"Yes; and it's just as true now as it ever was, old fellow."

"That may be; but did it ever occur to you that I might get tired hearing it.... And might, possibly, resent it some day?"

For a long time Dysart had been uncomfortably conscious that Grandcourt had had nearly enough of his half-sneering, half-humourous frankness. His liking for Grandcourt, even as a schoolboy, had invariably been tinged with tolerance and good-humoured contempt. Dysart had always led in everything; taken what he chose without considering Grandcourt-sometimes out of sheer perversity, he had taken what Grandcourt wanted-not really wanting it himself-as in the case of Rosalie Dene.

"What are you talking about resenting?-my monopolising your dinner partner?" asked Dysart, smiling. "Take her; amuse yourself. I don't want her."

Grandcourt inspected his cigar again. "I'm tired of that sort of thing, too," he said.

"What sort of thing?"

"Contenting myself with what you don't want."

Dysart lit a cigarette, still smiling, then shrugged and turned as though to go. Around them through the smoke rose the laughing clamour of young men gathering at the exit.

"I want to tell you something," said Grandcourt heavily. "I'm an ass to do it, but I want to tell you."

Dysart halted patiently.

"It's this," went on Grandcourt: "between you and my mother, I've never had a chance; she makes me out a fool and you have always assumed it to be true."

Dysart glanced at him with amused contempt.

A heavy flush rose to Grandcourt's cheek-bones. He said slowly:

"I want my chance. You had better let me have it when it comes."

"What chance do you mean?"

"I mean-a woman. All my life you've been at my elbow to step in. You took what you wanted-your shadow always falls between me and anybody I'm inclined to like.... It happened to-night-as usual.... And I tell you now, at last, I'm tired of it."

"What a ridiculous idea you seem to have of me," began Dysart, laughing.

"I'm afraid of you. I always was. Now-let me alone!"

"Have you ever known me, since I've been married-" He caught Grandcourt's eye, stammered, and stopped short. Then: "You certainly are absurd. Delancy! I wouldn't deliberately interfere with you or disturb a young girl's peace of mind. The trouble with you is--"

"The trouble with you is that women take to you very quickly, and you are always trying to see how far you can arouse their interest. What's the use of risking heartaches to satisfy curiosity?"

"Oh, I don't have heartaches!" said Dysart, intensely amused.

"I wasn't thinking of you. I suppose that's the reason you find it amusing.... Not that I think there's any real harm in you--"

"Thanks," laughed Dysart; "it only needed that remark to damn me utterly. Now go and dance with little Miss Seagrave, and don't worry about my trying to interfere."

Grandcourt looked sullenly at him. "I'm sorry I spoke, now," he said. "I never know enough to hold my tongue to you."

He turned bulkily on his heel and left the dining-hall. There were others, in throngs, leaving-young, eager-faced fellows, with a scattering of the usual "dancing" men on whom everybody could always count, and a few middle-aged gentlemen and women of the younger married set to give stability to what was, otherwise, a débutante's affair.

Dysart, strolling about, booked a dance or two, performed creditably, made his peace, for the sake of peace, with Sylvia Quest, whose ignorant heart had been partly awakened under his idle investigations. But this was Sylvia's second season, and she would no doubt learn several things of which she heretofore had been unaware. Just at present, however, her heart was very full, and life's outlook was indeed tragic to a young girl who believed herself wildly in love with a married man, and who employed all her unhappy wits in the task of concealing it.

A load of guilt lay upon her soul; the awful fact that she adored him frightened her terribly; that she could not keep away from him terrified her still more. But most of all she dreaded that he might guess her secret.

"I don't know why you thought I minded your not-not talking to me during dinner," she faltered. "I was having a perfectly heavenly time with Peter Tappan."

"Do you mean that?" murmured Dysart. He could not help playing his part, even when it no longer interested him. To murmur was as natural to him as to breathe.

She looked up piteously. "I would rather have talked to you," she said. "Peter Tappan is only an overgrown boy. If you had really cared to talk to me-" She checked herself, flushing deeply.

O Lord! he thought, contemplating in the girl's lifted eyes the damage he had not really expected to do. For it had, as usual, surprised him to realise, too late, how dangerous it is to say too much, and look too long, and how easy it is to awaken hearts asleep.

Dancing was to be general before the cotillion. Sylvia would have given him as many dances as he asked for; he danced once with her as a great treat, resolving never to experiment any more with anybody.... True, it might have been amusing to see how far he could have interested the little Seagrave girl-but he would renounce that; he'd keep away from everybody.

But Dysart could no more avoid making eyes at anything in petticoats than he could help the tenderness of his own smile or the caressing cadence of his voice, or the subtle, indefinite something in him which irritated men but left few women indifferent and some greatly perturbed as he strolled along on his amusing journey through the world.

He was strolling on now, having managed to leave Sylvia planted; and presently, without taking any particular trouble to find Geraldine, discovered her eventually as the centre of a promising circle of men, very young men and very old men-nothing medium and desirable as yet.

For a while, amused, Dysart watched her at her first party. Clearly she was inexperienced; she let these men have their own way and their own say; she was not handling them skilfully; yet there seemed to be a charm about this young girl that detached man after man from the passing throng and added them to her circle-which had now become a half circle, completely cornering her.

Animated, shyly confident, brilliant-eyed, and flushed with the excitement of attracting so much attention, she was beginning to lose her head a little-just a little. Dysart noticed it in her nervous laughter; in a slight exaggeration of gesture with fan and flowers; in the quick movement of her restless little head, as though it were incumbent upon her to give to every man confronting her his own particular modicum of attention-which was not like a débutante, either; and Dysart realised that she was getting on.

So he sauntered up, breaking through the circle, and reminded Geraldine of a dance she had not promised him.

She knew she had not promised, but she was quite ready to give it-had already opened her lips to assent-when a young man, passing, swung around abruptly as though to speak to her, hesitating as Geraldine's glance encountered his without recognition.

But, as he started to move on, she suddenly knew him; and at the same moment Kathleen's admonition rang in her ears. Her own voice drowned it.

"Oh, Duane!" she exclaimed, stretching out her hand across Dysart's line of advance.

"You are Geraldine Seagrave, are you not?" he asked smilingly, retaining her hand in such a manner as practically to compel her to step past Dysart toward him.

"Of course I am. You might have known me had you been amiable enough to appear at my coming out."

He laughed easily, still retaining her hand and looking down at her from his inch or two of advantage. Then he casually inspected Dysart, who, not at all pleased, returned his gaze with a careless unconcern verging on offence. Few men cared for Dysart on first inspection-or on later acquaintance; Mallett was no exception.

Geraldine said, with smiling constraint:

"It has been so very jolly to see you again." And withdrew her hand, adding: "I hope-some time--"

"Won't you let me talk to you now for a moment or two? You are not going to dismiss me with that sort of come-back-after all these years-are you?"

He seemed so serious about it that the girl coloured up.

"I-that is, Mr. Dysart was going to-to-" She turned and looked at Dysart, who remained planted where she had left him, exceedingly wroth at experiencing the sort of casual treatment he had so often meted out to others. His expression was peevish. Geraldine, confused, began hurriedly:

"I thought Mr. Dysart meant to ask me to dance."

"Meant to?" interrupted Mallett, laughing; "I mean to ask for this dance, and I do."

Once more she turned and encountered Dysart's darkening gaze, hesitated, then with a nervous, gay little gesture to him, partly promise, partly adieu, she took Mallett's arm.

It was the first glimmer of coquetry she had ever deliberately displayed; and at the same instant she became aware that something new had been suddenly awakened in her-something which stole like a glow through her veins, exciting her with its novelty.

"Do you know," she said, "that you have taken me forcibly away from an exceedingly nice man?"

"I don't care."

"Oh-but might I not at least have been consulted?"

"Didn't you want to come?" he asked, stopping short. There was something overbearing in his voice and his straight, unwavering gaze.

She didn't know how to take it, how to meet it. Voice and manner required some proper response which seemed to be beyond her experience.

She did not answer; but a slight pressure of her bare arm set him in motion again.

The phenomenon interested her; to see what control over this abrupt young man she really had she ventured a very slight retrograde arm-pressure, then a delicate touch to right, to left, and forward once more. It was most interesting; he backed up, guided right and left, and started forward or halted under perfect control. What had she been afraid of in him? She ventured to glance around, and, encountering a warmly personal interest in his gaze, instantly assumed that cold, blank, virginal mask which the majority of young girls discard at her age.

However, her long-checked growth in the arts of womanhood had already recommenced. She had been growing fast, feverishly, and was just now passing that period where the desire for masculine admiration innocently rules all else, but where the discovery of it chills and constrains.

She passed it at that moment. The next time their glances met she smiled a little. A new epoch in her life had begun.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked. "Are we not going to dance?"

"I thought we might sit out a dance or two in the conservatory-one or two--"

"One," she said decidedly. "Here are some palms. Why not sit here?"

There were a number of people about; she saw them, too, noted his hesitation, understood it.

"We'll sit here," she said, and stood smilingly regarding him while he lugged up two chairs to the most retired corner.

Slowly waving her fan, she seated herself and surveyed the room.

It is quite true that reunion after many years usually ends in constraint and indifference. If she felt slightly bored, she certainly looked it. Neither of them resembled the childish

recollections or preconceived notions of the other. They found themselves inspecting one another askance, as though furtively attempting to surprise some familiar feature, some resemblance to a cherished memory.

But the changes were too radical; their eyes, looking for old comrades, encountered the unremembered eyes of strangers-for they were strangers-this tall young man, with his gray eyes, pleasantly fashioned mouth, and cleanly moulded cheeks; and this long-limbed girl, who sat, knees crossed, one long, slim foot nervously swinging above its shadow on the floor.

In spite of his youth there was in his manner, if not in his voice, something tinged with fatigue. She thought of what Kathleen had said about him; looked up, instinctively questioning him with curious, uncomprehending eyes; then her gaze wandered, became lost in smiling retrospection as she thought of Dysart, peevish; and she frankly regretted him and his dance.

Young Mallett stirred, passed a rather bony hand over his shaven upper lip, and said abruptly: "I never expected you'd grow up like this. You've turned into a different kind of girl. Once you were chubby of cheek and limb. Do you remember how you used to fight?"

"Did I?"

"Certainly. You hit me twice in the eye because I lost my temper sparring with Scott. Your hands were small but heavy in those days.... I imagine they're heavier now."

She laughed, clasped both pretty hands over her knee, and tilted back against the palm, regarding him from dark, velvety eyes.

"You were a curiously fascinating child," he said. "I remember how fast you could run, and how your hair flew-it was thick and dark, with rather sunny high lights; and you were always running-always on the go.... You were a remarkably just girl; that I remember. You were absolutely fair to everybody."

"I was a very horrid little scrub," she said, watching him over her gently waving fan, "with a dreadful temper," she added.

"Have you it now?"

"Yes. I get over it quickly. Do you find Scott very much changed?"

"Well, not as much as you. Do you find Na?da changed?"

"Not nearly as much as you."

They smiled. The slight embarrassment born of polite indifference brightened into amiable interest, tinctured by curiosity.

"Duane, have you been studying painting all these years?"

"Yes. What have you been doing all these years?"

"Nothing." A shadow fell across her face. "It has been lonely-until recently. I began to live yesterday."

"You used to tell me you were lonely," he nodded.

"I was. You and Na?da were godsends." Something of the old thrill stirred her recollection. She leaned forward, looking at him curiously; the old memory of him was already lending him something of the forgotten glamour.

"How tall you are!" she said; "how much thinner and-how very impressively grown-up you are, Duane. I didn't expect you to be entirely a man so soon-with such a-an odd-expression--"

He asked, smiling: "What kind of an expression have I, Geraldine?"

"Not a boyish one; entirely a man's eyes and mouth and voice-a little too wise, as though, deep inside, you were tired of something; no, not exactly that, but as though you had seen many things and had lived some of them--"

She checked herself, lips softly apart; and the memory of what she had heard concerning him returned to her.

Confused, she continued to laugh lightly, adding: "I believe I was afraid of you at first. Ought I to be, still? You know more than I do-you know different kinds of things: your face and voice and manner show it. I feel humble and ignorant in the presence of so distinguished a European artist."

They were laughing together now without a trace of constraint; and she was aware that his interest in her was unfeigned and unmistakably the interest of a man for a woman, that he was looking at her as other men had now begun to look at her, speaking as other men spoke, frankly interested in her as a woman, finding her agreeable to look at and talk to.

In the unawakened depths of her a conviction grew that her old playmate must be classed with other men-man in the abstract-that indefinite and interesting term, hinting of pleasures to come and possibilities unimagined.

"Did you paint pictures all the time you were abroad?" she asked.

"Not every minute. I travelled a lot, went about, was asked to shoot in England and Austria.... I had a good time."

"Didn't you work hard?"

"No. Isn't it disgraceful!"

"But you exhibited in three salons. What were your pictures?"

"I did a portrait of Lady Bylow and her ten children."

"Was it a success?"

He coloured. "They gave me a second medal."

"Oh, I am so glad!" she exclaimed warmly. "And what were your others?"

"A thing called 'The Witch.' Rather painful."

"What was it?"

"Life size. A young girl arrested in bed. Her frightened beauty is playing the deuce with the people around. I don't know why I did it-the painting of textures-her flesh, and the armour of the Puritan guard, the fur of the black cat-and-well, it was academic and I was young."

"Did they reward you?"

"No."

"What was the third picture?"

"Oh, just a girl," he said carelessly.

"Did they give you a prize for it?"

"Y-yes. Only a mention."

"Was it a portrait?"

"Yes-in a way."

"What was it? Just a girl?"

"Yes."

"Who was she?"

"Oh, just a girl--"

"Was she pretty?"

"Yes. Shall we dance this next--"

"No. Was she a model?"

"She posed--"

Geraldine, lips on the edge of her spread fan, regarded him curiously.

"That is a very romantic life, isn't it?" she murmured.

"What?"

"Yours. I don't know much about it; Kathleen took me to hear 'La Bohême'; and I found Murger's story in the library. I have also read 'Trilby.' Did you-were you-was life like that when you studied in the Latin Quarter?"

He laughed. "Not a bit. I never saw that species of life off the stage."

"Oh, wasn't there any romance?" she asked forlornly.

"Well-as much as you find in New York or anywhere."

"Is there any romance in New York?"

"There is anywhere, isn't there? If only one has the instinct to recognise it and a capacity to comprehend it."

"Of course," she murmured, "there are artists and studios and models and poverty everywhere.... I suppose that without poverty real romance is scarcely possible."

He was still laughing when he answered:

"Financial conditions make no difference. Romance is in one's self-or it is nowhere."

"Is it in-you?" she asked audaciously.

He made no pretence of restraining his mirth.

"Why, I don't know, Geraldine. Lots of people have the capacity for it. Poverty, art, a studio, a velvet jacket, and models are not essentials.... You ask if it is in me. I think it is. I think it exists in anybody who can glorify the commonplace. To make people look with astonished interest at something which has always been too familiar to arrest their attention-only your romancer can accomplish this."

"Please go on," she said as he ended. "I'm listening very hard. You are glorifying commonplaces, you know."

They both laughed; he, a little red, disconcerted, piqued, and withal charmed at her dainty thrust at himself.

"I was talking commonplaces," he admitted, "but how was I to know enough not to? Women are usually soulfully receptive when a painter opens a tin of mouldy axioms.... I didn't realise I was encountering my peer--"

"You may be encountering more than that," she said, the excitement of her success with him flushing her adorably.

"Oh, I've heard how terribly educated you and Scott are. No doubt you can floor me on anything intellectual. See here, Geraldine, it's simply wicked!-you are so soft and pretty, and nobody could suspect you of knowing such a lot and pouncing out on a fellow for trying a few predigested platitudes on you--"

"I don't know anything, Duane! How perfectly horrid of you!"

"Well, you've scared me!"

"I haven't. You're laughing at me. You know well enough that I don't know the things you know."

"What are they, in Heaven's name?"

"Things-experiences-matters that concern life-the world, men, everything!"

"You wouldn't be interesting if you knew such things," he said. She thought there was the same curious hint of indifference, something of listlessness, almost fatigue in the expression of his eyes. And again, apparently apropos of nothing, she found herself thinking of what Kathleen had said about this man.

"I don't understand you," she said, looking at him.

He smiled, and the ghost of a shadow passed from his eyes.

"I was talking at random."

"I don't think you were."

"Why not?"

She shook her head, drawing a long, quiet breath. Silent, lips resting in softly troubled curves, she thought of what Kathleen had said about this man. What had he done to disgrace himself?

A few moments later she rose with decision.

"Come," she said, unconsciously imperious.

He looked across the room and saw Dysart.

"But I haven't begun to tell you-" he began; and she interrupted smilingly:

"I know enough about you for a while; I have learned that you are a very wonderful young man and that I'm inclined to like you. You will come to see me, won't you?... No, I can't remain here another second. I want to go to Kathleen. I want you to ask her to dance, too.... Please don't urge me, Duane. I-this is my first dinner dance-yes, my very first. And I don't intend to sit in corners-I wish to dance; I desire to be happy. I want to see lots and lots of men, not just one.... You don't know all the lonely years I must make up for every minute now, or you wouldn't look at me in such a sulky, bullying way.... Besides-do you think I find you a compensation for all those delightful people out yonder?"

He glanced up and saw Dysart still watching them. Suddenly he dropped his hand over hers.

"Perhaps you may find that compensation in me some day," he said. "How do you know?"

"What a silly thing to say! Don't paw me, Duane; you hurt my hand. Look at what you've done to my fan!"

"It came between us. I'm sorry for anything that comes between us."

Both were smiling fixedly; he said nothing for a moment; their gaze endured until she flinched.

"Silly," she said, "you are trying to tyrannise over me as you did when we were children. I remember now--"

"You did the bullying then."

"Did I? Then I'll continue."

"No, you won't; it's my turn."

"I will if I care to!"

"Try it."

"Very well. Take me to Kathleen."

"Not until I have the dances I want!"

Again their eyes met in silence. Dark little lights glimmered in hers; his narrowed. The fixed smile died out.

"The dances you want!" she repeated. "How do you propose to secure them? By crushing my fingers or dragging me about by my hair? I want to tell you something, Duane: these blunt, masterful men are very amusing on the stage and in fiction, but they're not suitable to have tagging at heel--"

"I won't do any tagging at heel," he said; "don't count on it."

"I have no inclination to count on you at all," she retorted, thoroughly irritated.

"You will have it some day."

"Oh! Do you think so?"

"Yes.... I didn't mean to speak the way I did. Won't you give me a dance or two?"

"No. I had no idea how horrid you could be.... I was told you were.... Now I can believe it. Take me to Kathleen; do you hear me?"

After a step or two he said, not looking at her:

"I'm really sorry, Geraldine. I'm not a brute. Something about that fellow Dysart upset me."

"Please don't talk about it any more."

"No.... Only I am glad to see you again, and I do care for your regard."

"Then earn it," she said unevenly, as her anger subsided. "I don't know very much about men in the world, but I know enough to understand when they're offensive."

"Was I?"

"Yes.... Because you carried me away with a high hand, you thought it the easiest way to take with me on every occasion.... Duane, do you know, in some ways, we are somewhat alike? And that is why we used to fight so."

"I believe we are," he said slowly. "But-I was never able to keep away from you."

"Which makes our outlook rather stormy, doesn't it?" she said, turning to him with all of her old sweet friendly manner. "Do let us agree, Duane. Mercy on us! we ought to adore each other-unless we have forgotten the quarrelsome but adorable friendship of our childhood. I thought you were the perfection of all boys."

"I thought there was no girl to equal you, Geraldine."

She turned audaciously, not quite knowing what she was saying:

"Think so now, Duane! It will be good for us both."

"Do you mean it?"

"Not-seriously," she said.... "And, Duane, please don't be too serious with me. I am-you make me uncertain-you make me uncomfortable. I don't know just what to say to you or just how it will be taken. You mustn't be-that way-with me; you won't, will you?"

He was silent for a moment; then his face lighted up. "No," he said, laughing; "I'll open another can of platitudes.... You're a dear to forgive me."

Dancing had been general before the cotillion; débutantes continued to arrive in shoals from other dinners, a gay, rosy, eager throng, filling drawing-rooms, conservatory, and library with birdlike flutter and chatter, overflowing into the breakfast-room, banked up on the stairs in bright-eyed battalions.

The cotillion, led by Jack Dysart dancing alone, was one of those carefully thought out intellectual affairs which shakes New York society to its intellectual foundations.

In one figure Geraldine came whizzing into the room in a Palm Beach tricycle-chair trimmed with orchids and propelled by Peter Tappan; and from her seat amid the flowers she distributed favours-live white cockatoos, clinging, flapping, screeching on gilded wands; fans spangled with tiny electric jewels; parasols of pink silk set with incandescent lights; crystal cages containing great, pale-green Luna moths alive and fluttering; circus hoops of gilt filled with white tissue paper, through which the men jumped.

There was also a Totem-pole figure-and other things, including supper and champagne, and the semi-obscurity of conservatory and stairs; and there was the usual laughter to cover heart-aches, and the inevitable torn gowns and crushed flowers; and a number of young men talking too loud and too much in the cloak-room, and Rosalie Dysart admitting to Scott Seagrave in the conservatory that nobody really understood her; and Delancy Grandcourt edging about the outer borders of the flowery, perfumed vortex, following Geraldine and losing her a hundred times.

On one of these occasions she was captured by Duane Mallett and convoyed to the supper-room, where later she became utterly transfigured into a laughing, blushing, sparkling, delicious creature, small ears singing with her first venturesome glass of champagne.

All the world seemed laughing with her; life itself was only an endless bubble of laughter, swelling the gay, unending chorus; life was the hot breeze from scented fans stirring a thousand roses; life was the silken throng and its whirling and its feverish voices crying out to her to live!

Her childhood's playmate had come back a stranger, but already he was being transformed, through the magic of laughter, into the boy she remembered; awkwardness of readjusting her relations with him had entirely vanished; she called him dear Duane, laughed at him, chatted with him, appealed, contradicted, rebuked, tyrannised, until the young fellow was clean swept off his feet.

Then Dysart came, and for the second time the note of coquetry was struck, clearly, unmistakably, through the tension of a moment's preliminary silence; and Duane, dumb, furious, yielded her only when she took Dysart's arm with a finality that became almost insolent as she turned and looked back at her childhood's comrade, who followed, scowling at Dysart's graceful back.

Confused by his hurt and his anger, which seemed out of all logical proportion to the cause of it, he turned abruptly and collided with Grandcourt, who had edged up that far, waiting for the opportunity of which Dysart, as usual, robbed him.

Grandcourt apologised, muttering something about Mrs. Severn wishing him to find Miss Seagrave. He stood, awkwardly, looking after Geraldine and Dysart, but not offering to follow them.

"Lot of débutantes here-the whole year's output," he said vaguely. "What a noisy supper-room-eh, Mallett? I'm rather afraid champagne is responsible for some of it."

Duane started forward, halted.

"Did you say Mrs. Severn wants Miss Seagrave?"

"Y-yes.... I'd better go and tell her, hadn't I?"

He flushed heavily, but made no movement to follow Geraldine and Dysart, who had now entered the conservatory and disappeared.

For a full minute, uncomfortably silent, the two men stood side by side; then Duane said in a constrained voice:

"I'll speak to Miss Seagrave, if you'll find her brother and Mrs. Severn"; and walked slowly toward the palm-set rotunda.

When he found them-and he found them easily, for Geraldine's overexcited laughter warned and guided him-Dysart, her fan in his hands, looked up at Duane intensely annoyed, and the young girl tossed away a half-destroyed rose and glanced up, the laughter dying out from lips and eyes.

"Kathleen sent for you," said Duane drily.

"I'll come in a minute, Duane."

"In a moment," repeated Dysart insolently, and turned his back.

The colour surged into Mallett's face; he turned sharply on his heel.

"Wait!" said Geraldine; "Duane-do you hear me?"

"I'll take you back," began Dysart, but she passed in front of him and laid her hand on Mallett's arm.

"Won't you wait for me, Duane?"

And suddenly things seemed to be as they had been in their childhood, the resurgence swept them both back to the old and stormy footing again.

"Duane!"

"What?"

"I tell you to wait for me-here!" She stamped her foot.

He scowled-but waited. She turned on Dysart:

"Good-night!"-offering her hand with decision.

Dysart began: "But I had expected--"

"Good-night!"

Dysart stared, took the offered hand, hesitated, started to speak, thought better of it, made a characteristically graceful obeisance, and an excellent exit, all things considered.

Geraldine drew a deep breath, moved forward through the flower-set dimness a step or two, halted, and, as Mallett came up, passed her arm through his.

"Duane," she said, "the champagne has gone to my head."

"Nonsense!"

"It has! My cheeks are queer-the skin fits too tight. My legs don't belong to me-but they'll do."

She laughed and turned toward him; her feverish breath touched his cheek.

"My first dinner! Isn't it disgraceful? But how could I know?"

"You mustn't let it scare you."

"It doesn't. I don't care. I knew something would go wrong. I-the truth is, that I don't know how to act-how to accept my liberty. I don't know how to use it. I'm a perfect fool.... Do you think Kathleen will notice this? Isn't it terrible! She never dreamed I would touch any wine. Do I look-queer?"

"No. It isn't so, anyway-and you'll simply lean on me--"

"Oh, my knees are perfectly steady. It's only that they don't seem to belong to me. I'm-I'm excited-I've laughed too much-more than I have ever laughed in all the years of my life put together. You don't know what I mean, do you, Duane? But it's true; I've talked to-night more than I ever have in any one week.... And it's gone to my head-all this-all these people who laugh with me over nothing-follow me, tell me I am pretty, ask me for dances, favours, beg me for a word with them-as though I would need asking or urging!-as though my impulse is not to open my heart to every one of them-open my arms to them-thank them on my knees for being here-for being nice to me-all these boys who make little circles around me-so funny, so quaint in their formality--"

She pressed his arm tighter.

"Let me rattle on-let me babble, Duane. I've years of silence to make up for. Let me talk like a fool; you know I'm not one.... Oh, the happiness of this one night!-the happiness of it! I never shall have enough dancing, never enough of pleasure.... I-I'm perfectly mad over pleasure; I like men.... I suppose the champagne makes me frank about it-but I don't care-I do like men--"

"That one?" demanded Mallett, halting her on the edge of the palms which screened the conservatory doors.

"You mean Mr. Dysart? Yes-I-do like him."

"Well, he's married, and you'd better not," he snapped.

"C-can't I like him?" in piteous astonishment which set the colour flying into his face.

"Why, yes-of course-I didn't mean--"

"What did you mean? Isn't it-shouldn't he be--"

"Oh, it's all right, Geraldine. Only he's a sort of a pig to keep you away from-others--"

"Other-pigs?"

He turned sharply, seized her, and forcibly turned her toward the light. She made no effort to control her laughter, excusing it between breaths:

"I didn't mean to turn what you said into ridicule; it came out before I meant it.... Do let me laugh a little, Duane. I simply cannot care about anything serious for a while-I want to be frivolous--"

"Don't laugh so loud," he whispered.

She released his arm and sank down on a marble seat behind the flowering oleanders.

"Why are you so disagreeable?" she pouted. "I know I'm a perfect fool, and the champagne has gone to my silly head-and you'll never catch me this way again.... Don't scowl at me. Why don't you act like other men? Don't you know how?"

"Know how?" he repeated, looking down into the adorably flushed face uplifted. "Know how to do what?"

"To flirt. I don't. Everybody has tried to teach me to-night-everybody except you ... Duane.... I'm ready to go home; I'll go. Only my head is whirling so-Tell me-are you glad to see me again?... Really?... And you don't mind my folly? And my tormenting you?... And my-my turning your head a little?"

"You've done that," he said, forcing a laugh.

"Have I?... I knew it.... You see, I am horridly truthful to-night. In vino veritas! ... Tell me-did I, all by myself, turn that too-experienced head of yours?"

"You're doing it now," he said.

She laughed deliciously. "Now? Am I? Yes, I know I am. I've made a lot of men think hard to-night.... I didn't know I could; I never before thought of it.... And-even you, too?... You're not very serious, are you?"

"Yes, I am. I tell you, Geraldine, I'm about as much in love with you as--"

"In love!"

"Yes--"

"No!"

"Yes, I am--"

But she would not have it put so crudely.

"You dear boy," she said, "we'll both be quite sane to-morrow.... No, I don't mind your kissing my hand-I'm dreadfully tired, anyway.... We'll find Kathleen, shall we? My head doesn't buzz much."

"Geraldine," he said, deliberately encircling her waist, "you are only the same small girl I used to know, after all."

"'Duane!' she gasped-'why did you?'"

"Y-yes, I'm afraid so."

"And you're not really old enough to really care for anybody, are you?"

"Care?"

"Love."

"No, I'm not. Don't talk to me that way, Duane."

He drew her suddenly into his arms and kissed her on the cheek twice, and again on the mouth, as, crimson, breathless, she strained away from him.

"Duane!" she gasped-"why did you?" Then the throbbing of her body and crushed lips made her furious. "Why did you do that?" she cried fiercely-but her voice ended in a dry sob; she covered her head and face with bare arms; her hands tightened convulsively and clenched.

"Oh," she said, "how could you!-when I came to you-feeling-afraid of myself! I know you now. You are what they say you are."

"What do they say I am?" he stammered.

"Horrid-I don't know-wild!-whatever that implies.... I didn't care-I didn't care even to understand, because I thought you generous and nice to me-and I was so confident of you that I came with you and told you I had had some champagne which made my head swim.... And you-did this! It-it was contemptible."

He bit his lip, but said nothing.

"Why did you do it?" she demanded, dropping her arms from her face and staring at him. "Is that the sort of thing you did abroad?"

"Can't you see I'm in love with you?" he said.

"Oh! Is that love? Then keep it for your models and-and Bohemian grisettes! A decent man couldn't have done such a thing to me. I-I loathe myself for being silly and weak enough to have touched that wine, but I have more contempt for you than I have for myself. What you did was cowardly!"

Much of the colour had fled from her face; her eyes, bluish underneath the lower lids, turned wearily, helplessly in search of Kathleen.

"I knew I was unfit for liberty," she said, half to herself. "What an ending to my first pleasure!"

"For Heaven's sake, Geraldine," he broke out, "don't take an accident so tragically--"

"I want Kathleen. Do you hear?"

"Very well; I'll find her.... And, whatever you say or think, I am in love with you," he added fiercely.

His voice, his words, were meaningless; she was conscious only of the heavy pulse in throat and temple, of the desire for her room and darkness. Lights, music, the scent of dying flowers, laughter, men, all had become abhorrent. Something within her lay bruised and stunned; and, as never before, the vast and terrible phantom of her loneliness rose like a nightmare to menace her.

Later Kathleen came and took her away.

* * *

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